The Caribbean is one of the world’s most iconic holiday destinations, boasting a warm tropical climate, rich and interesting history, and a plethora of islands surrounded by shallow, sun-lit coral gardens. Interestingly, many of these features also make it a hotspot for shipwrecks, with countless vessels over the region’s long history of seafaring succumbing to fierce equatorial weather, unforgiving reefs, and merciless attacks.
The waters surrounding the British Virgin Islands are littered with hundreds of relics from such past tragedies, alongside plenty more worthwhile wreck dives and artificial reefs being created every year. As a result, the nation is well known among divers with a ‘lust for rust’, but the wreck diving here is far from exclusive, with most sites accessible enough for beginner divers too.
So, whether you’re a rust-rookie or a seasoned wreck-head, keep reading as we dive into some of the British Virgin Island’s most interesting wrecks, and get ready to beef-up that bucket-list.
The RMS Rhone was a 95-metre Royal Mail Steamer once thought to be “unsinkable”, thanks to its history of weathering many fierce storms. But, in 1867, a category-three hurricane put this reputation to the test, throwing the Rhone against Black Rock Point, at the western tip of Salt Island. Sadly, the vessel split under the force, and its large boilers blew apart, sealing the Rhone’s fate and killing more than a hundred people. Many of the underwater segments of the 1977 thriller The Deep were filmed on the Rhone, and in 1980, the wreck and surrounding area became the British Virgin Island’s first national marine park.
It takes at least two dives to fully experience the wreck of the RMS Rhone, with the two parts located some 30-metres apart, and at slightly different depths. The vessel’s stern and mid-section sit in shallower water closer to shore, offering interesting discoveries such as a group of black-and-white tiles known as “the dance floor” and a “lucky porthole” with its glass still intact. Divers can also find the Rhone’s enormous propellor, thought to be the oldest bronze propellor in the world, partially embedded in the rock. The bow lies on its side in deeper water, where divers can find various open swim-throughs, a cannon, and the foremast, complete with the crow’s nest.
The Kodiak Queen is a former US Navy fuel barge launched in 1940, and thought to be one of just five vessels to have survived the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor. After spending a decade rusting away in a scrapyard in Tortola, the decorated naval vessel was rediscovered and given a new lease of life, thanks to the non-profit organisation Beyond The Reef. In 2017, it became an underwater art installation and new dive site in the British Virgin Islands, having been fitted with an enormous 25-metre kraken sculpture made from wire mesh – earning the wreck its nickname, The Kraken. Having survived multiple massive hurricanes later that year, the relentless swells finally took their toll in 2018. Unfortunately, parts of the sculpture were either damaged or swept, including the ‘head’, which was originally intended as a habitat for goliath grouper.
This wreck now sits at a maximum depth of just 18-metres, off the coast of Virgin Gorda, and has quickly become a favourite amongst divers visiting the archipelago. And, with a minimum depth of just five-metres, parts of this wreck can also be enjoyed snorkellers and freedivers. Clusters of small corals have already begun colonising this wreck, attracting a diverse range of fish species, including large schools of snapper. Having undergone extensive cleaning before being scuttled, the Kodiak Queen dive site also offers some interesting purpose-built swim-throughs and penetration routes.
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In an effort to avoid damaging other vessels during a hurricane in 1981, this unused 75-metre refrigerator vessel was removed from a harbour on St. Maarten, before being set alight and set adrift by its owner. As the vessel floated towards the British Virgin Islands, authorities eventually intervened, towing it to its final resting place some 12-kilometres northwest of Tortola. Due to its remote location, this wreck is too far out for many operators to reach, meaning it rarely sees divers. But some boats, such as the Cuan Law, do make regular visits when the conditions are right.
The Chikuzen now lies on its starboard side at 22-metres, surrounded by a desert of sand. While the three large cargo holds collapsed during Hurricane Irma, much of the ship remains intact, including its railings, winches, and two massive masts that stick out almost parallel to the seafloor. Colourful corals and sponges have covered swathes of the hull, creating an artificial reef in the open ocean, attracting jacks, lookdowns, pompanos, king mackerel, bream, spadefish, and hundreds – if not thousands – of barracuda hanging in the water column. Cobias and nurse sharks are other possible highlights.
Located off the south coast of Cooper Island, Wreck Alley is one of the most popular underwater attractions in the British Virgin Islands. This superb dive site is made up of four individual wrecks, all purposefully scuttled to create a thriving artificial reef. Grunts, parrotfish, snappers, moray eels, and groupers can be found here in abundance, as well as vast fields of garden eels and lots of large stingrays. Scuba divers will also enjoy crossing the blue water between vessels to inspect the wide variety of vibrant corals and sponges that have colonised each wreck.
Originally a cargo boat, the Marie L was the first vessel to be scuttled here in the 1990s, followed by the smaller tugboat, Pat, just a few years later. These two vessels are located next to each other, sitting upright on the sand. In 2001, the Beata was sunk just a short distance away and remains beautifully preserved, with the Island Seal being added in 2009. All these vessels can be accessed from the same mooring line, and range between around 15 to 24-metres in depth.
Scheduled to take off from Tortola in 1993, carrying 27 passengers and three crew, this small plane overran the runway and crashed into the ocean some 60-metres beyond. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and the aircraft was salvaged, becoming a brief movie star when it was used as a prop in a BBC film. Eventually, the plane was stripped of its instruments, wings and tail, and sunk beside one of the British Virgin Island’s top dive sites, Coral Garden. This aircraft now sits on a sandy bottom at a depth of around 12-metres, providing an interesting introduction to wreck diving for visitors of all scuba certification levels. And, with the enormous gorgonians, tube sponges, and brain and star corals of Coral Garden lying nearby, even experienced divers can enjoy this wonderful wreck.
Sharkplaneo and Willy T
Following the success of their first venture, the Kodiak Queen, Beyond the Reef have committed to creating more artificial wrecks throughout the British Virgin Islands using vessels and structures damaged during recent hurricanes. Created in 2019, Sharkplaneo is an art installation located off the coast of Great Dog island, close to Coral Garden and Airplane Wreck. This new dive site is made up of three aircrafts, each playfully turned into a different species of shark, including a bull shark, nurse shark, and a hammerhead. The three wrecks now sit at depths between 12 and 15-metres, providing an amusing spectacle as they wait to be colonised by all manner of marine life. Sharkplaneo also features a coral-archway garden made from recycled mooring lines.
The Willy T was a popular tourist bar formerly moored in the Bight at Norman Island, before being washed ashore during Hurricane Irma. Beyond the Reef spent several months transforming the ravaged vessel into an underwater theme park, complete with skeletal pirates on-deck and other pirate paraphernalia. The installation was eventually scuttled in 2019, just off of Peter Island’s Key Bay, landing perfectly upright on the sand in between two coral heads.
Andegada’s treacherous Horseshoe Reef has claimed hundreds of vessels in its time, and still presents a very real danger to boaters to this day. Many of the wrecks here occurred between before the 20th century, and all that remains of these wooden ships are piles of ballast stones and cannons – although numerous steel-hulled vessels can also be found. Well-known shipwrecks here include HMS Astrea, a 32-gun British frigate involved in the American War of Independence, and the Rocus, a 115-metre steel steamship that littered the reef with its strange cargo of cow bones. Other noteworthy sites include the San Ignacio and the Parramatta, among many, many more.
While Horseshoe Reef, and Anegada in general, certainly sits among the most prolific ship graveyards in the world, it has never found fame as a wreck diving hotspot. The distant and precarious nature of this reef makes access particularly difficult, and for conservation reasons, the British Virgin Islands Government has made it illegal to anchor on Horseshoe Reef. As a result, the majority of these sites can only be explored when conditions are perfectly calm – a rare occurrence in these remote waters – and few operators bother making visits. That said, for advanced and experienced divers looking for the next adventure, Anegada has plenty of delights on offer.